Ten Ways to Write

Last night in bed I picked up Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing as a quick mind-calm to round off the day. I've owned it for a while, and read it before, but like all good advice found in books, it helps to read it again and again because I take away different things. I've changed since the last time I picked up this book, and that means I can appreciate new things / ignore new things / disagree with new things...

Plus, I get to write my own list for this blog!

So, I give you my very own list of 10 do's and don't's for good writing.

  1. Let it cool before editing. By which I mean, write something - anything - whenever you can, and believe in your heart it's brilliant, but don't publish it, or show it to friends, that same day. Heck, not even that same week. Put it down and let your mind reset before you edit it with a little more objectivity. 
  2. Punctuate consistently and sparsely. Exclamation marks outside of speech are poison to good writing, and getting confused between your hyphens and your commas and all the other little buggers can confuse a reader. By all means break convention, but if you do, do it for a reason - for tone, or voice, or because you know it's right for the feel of the writing. Don't do it because you're not sure how these things work. You want to be a writer; learn the tools.
  3. Try not to use much more than 'said' to indicate speech. Here I'm in total agreement with good ol' Elmore. It's clunky to read and at its worst can be little more that  narrative intrusion that cuts up the flow. 'What?' he interjected. Simon nodded sagely. 'It's true,' he intoned. 'And worse,' he whispered, his bright eyes filled with the wisdom of all great men, 'it sounds a tad pretentious if not handled very, very well.'
  4. Don't hate adverbs too much. The poor guys get a bit of a bashing. Elmore certainly has little room for them. I disagree here a bit. They do need to be used with care, and liberal additions of them make any writing sound like the worst attempts of a school child, but... I have a soft spot for them. And they do work with speech, no matter what other say. So there.
  5. Don't start with weather. Don't focus on it too much, either. Yes, it can set scene, but you know what? So can good writing, and it does so without trying to force it down readers' throats. Thunder can crash, but it shouldn't do so trailing a banner behind it with THIS IS IMPORTANT AND DRAMATIC!' written in big, obvious letters.
  6. Cut all prologues. If it's important, why is it in here? Cut, cut, cut.
  7. Be careful describing characters' looks. Subtle descriptions and throw away lines can build up an image in the mind's eye that adds to the reader's understanding. Shoveling it all on at once can be overwhelming, unimaginative and make it seem like the writer has someone specific in mind they're projecting into the narrative. Think of all the slash fiction / emo stories written by teenage girls with a suspiciously specific description of the lead male. Hmm...
  8. Cut out words. This links into the first point, but it's different. You should be able to get your meaning across without having to let sentences roll on and on. Less is more - it shows a honed craft and a command of the story you're telling. You are the writer. Don't let the writing get out of hand. Adjectives are prime candidates here, and any repetition of description or setting should go. And don't use the same word too much within 200 words of the initial use: 'He was standing in the park. It was a big park, and he had come to the park because he needed space to think. Parks were good for that. He liked parks. He liked this park. This park was always empty, unlike so many other parks in the city...'
  9. Learn what tenses and persons mean. Be sure you don't accidentally switch half way through the story, or worse, half way through a sentence. A cardinal sin.
  10. Show, don't tell. This is the big one - and you'll hear it a lot. It is probably the staple of all good writing, and the fault of all bad. Don't encourage lazy readers, and don't be a mollycoddling writer. Readers shouldn't have to work for meaning, but they won't appreciate being spoon fed. Build up voice and characters that allow events to happen more naturally, without the narrator having to spell it out blankly. This is most true in back story, or the openings of stories where you feel readers need to know information to make sense of actions. Consider; 'She moved through the corridors, the sword cold and heavy in her hand. It has been five years now since the Alliance, the collection of men and bananas that now ruled the world of Pancake, had killed her father, the true King of Breakfast, and had thought to kill her too. It had been almost impossible for her to escape to the barren Lunchlands, to bide her time, but now, with this sword, she was ready...' Terrible writing, not because the subject matter is laughable (although it is, I know, I know...) but because the writer has info-dumped backstory that should have been masterfully woven in, or brought to light in speech, or implied trough revelation. Basically, it's lazy. Yes, it takes more work to do the things I just said, but if you want to make money writing, then it is hard work. True fact!


  1. Sage advice! Especially #10, of course. (Beware backstory-laden bananas alliances.)

  2. Thank you! I totally plan to write this book now, so don't you go stealing my patented 'It was the banana princess with the heavy sword' plot twist...